Ethiopia

Hard yards for everyone

The southern third of Ethiopia wasn’t particularly easy going for us; the roads deteriorated into a dusty mess, the terrain remained high and hilly, and the lively locals somehow became even more boisterous than those in the north. All combined to serve up some challenging conditions which would result in our longest and hungriest days in the saddle – with the 200km either side of the town of Dila thoroughly testing not only our mental reserve, but also our tolerance for dust inhalation. However, as we grinded through the final few hundred kilometres of what has been a fascinating country, some of the hardships we saw along the way gave us plenty of food for thought.

Dusty times…

….and long days.

The team mechanic’ll sort that…

Evidently, the need to carry huge drums of water for great distances is indiscriminate of age or gender in Ethiopia; as we saw terrific volumes being carried by a full spectrum of society – either on heads, on backs, or by any means possible. One of the most notable sights however, was an elderly woman walking barefoot between villages with a single microwave-sized rock tied to her back. The whole process looked excruciating and was no doubt a fairly thankless task. However, she was at least able to reward herself – after a level of physical exertion well beyond this particular duo – with a refreshing mouthful of brown, turbid water.

That’s not full of feathers.

Certainly, cycling long distances across continents has been difficult, and for us, Ethiopia has raised the difficulty-rating of this particular trip. However, the hardships we have witnessed along this route helped highlight to us what seems to be a very western interpretation of that word: hard. Think you’ve got it tough? Try filling your microwave with concrete, hoisting it onto your back and carrying to the town down the road. Then repeat until nightfall.

Ethiopia is a country of quite exceptional beauty, and its position at the heart of Africa’s Rift Valley helps it boast landscapes that would be the draw card of any nation on earth. Its food is unique, its coffee a world-beater, and its people (at least those who are not throwing things) are a well-meaning, generous bunch.  Its flaws though are not trivial, and it certainly seems that there is plenty of work to do here – with the first cab off the rank surely being an attempt to curb this incessant population growth.

Ethiopia has been an aesthetic win.

Phonetics: works in any language.

 

Highs and lows

Ethiopia is proving to be quite a surprise package for cycling, just so long as you’re not one to shy away from the odd hill climb. Each day we find ourselves riding through some spectacular landscapes which could easily be mistaken for the Swiss Alps or Grand Canyon. Most notably, the magnificent 40km stretch through Abay Gorge deserves individual praise and falls easily into the top five days of our entire trip (well, the descent certainly does, the severe three-hour climb out left us wondering whether it was indeed worth it). Interestingly, this area has also provided some of the oldest ever fossilised human remains; apparently some folks were knocking around here about 3 million years ago, so the natural beauty of this place is not exactly breaking news.

Abay Gorge, photo taken after and before a 20km descent/climb.

A slow climb out of the gorge.

Our second noteworthy observation of this county is the quite massive and conspicuous population – if ever a market for promoting the benefits of birth control existed, then Ethiopia is most definitely it. The number of people we see every day is staggering, and the proportion under the age of ten has to be seen to be believed. We were fortunate enough to share an evening meal with a chap named Sisay, who – when not being a charming and hospitable Ethiopian – spends his time running clinics in rural villages to educate on this very issue, and he enlightened us further on the scale of the problem they are facing.

The peloton regroups.

Resupplying , with company.

For now though, the long periods of solitude to which we have become accustomed are a distant memory, as we find it difficult to recall a continuous stretch of five kilometres since entering Ethiopia without passing an unnamed village or encountering at least a group of people. Unfortunately, a few of the local kids find throwing stones at passing cyclists to be a jolly good jape, and while this is a bit of an annoyance, it’s a manageable one.

This country has perhaps provided the most eventful riding days of our trip so far, though certainly not the easiest. However – and quite crucially – the unexpected pleasure of Ethiopian coffee has so far got us through intact.

Late finish.

In search of a lunch stop.

We have also enjoyed a full compliment of weather in Ethiopia.

 

Ethiopia, 2007

After passing through what can best be described as a less-than-watertight border crossing, we left the smiling Sudanese behind and departed a country we’ll remember fondly, though with a cuisine we’ll be happy to forget. The contrast once into Ethiopia was immediate; as the strict Muslim way of life was replaced by a conspicuously more liberal vibe, separated only by a poorly constructed wooden gate.

Border crossing Ebola screening: all clear.

Viewed from above, Ethiopia would appear as a series of fairly significant mountain ranges encircled by an international border. That is to say, this is a very hilly country. As a result, we have settled back into our lowest possible gear, to let the heart rate soar, the mind wonder, and once again get used to covering no more than 10km in an hour.

We carry these guys in our panniers and deploy them when necessary.

Our ride through northern Ethiopia has certainly been entertaining, as every village has greeted us with enthusiastic and very vocal crowds that wouldn’t look particularly out of place on a stage of the Tour de France. It has however been one of the poorest and most confronting sections of our ride so far, and it is hard to imagine that a great deal has changed in these communities in the last 150 years.

Avid followers of this blog may remember the difficulties in establishing the correct time when we arrived in western China to begin this journey. However, it would appear that the Ethiopians well and truly take the biscuit for confusing what should be a fairly non-negotiable concept. In yet another obscure interpretation of the infeasible beginnings of organised religion, the Ethiopians have decided their calendar should begin seven years later than the rest of the world (making it only 2007 here), given themselves 13 months, celebrate Christmas 13 days later, and decided that the sun rises and sets at 12 o’clock (though this does in fact seem to make sense). Unfortunately, on account of alcohol being illegal in Sudan, the conversation in which we learnt about all this coincided with our first beer in a month, which only added to our loose understanding of the subject. Still, for a while now we have taken to operating on our own time, based on how tired, hungry, or energetic we are feeling at any given moment, and so all this has thankfully proved to be fairly circumstantial.

The place where time was re-understood

Up hill, we are usually comprehensively beaten.

Part of a 2,000m climb.